By Stephen Um
The trends of urbanization and globalization are two realities in our culture today. There’s been an unprecedented mobility of people, ideas, and resources that are moving into cities. Nearly 5.5 million people move into cities every month, and over 22 percent of the world’s population lives in 600 of its cities. As more and more people inhabit the world’s major cities, their importance grows because they become centers of power, culture, and worship.
We can be certain that, in the midst of a global population boom with cities at its center, the world’s suburbs will become increasingly influenced by the cities to which they are connected. More than ever before, it is now the case that “as the city goes, so goes the culture” (Timothy J. Keller). What we can observe now is that cities are the epicenter of cultural change that happens throughout the world. Cities forge culture. When you’re in the city, you’re surrounded by people who are both like and unlike you. This forces you to dig deep inside, challenges you, brings the best out of you, and helps you appreciate other cultures.
While it is true that Western culture has increasingly distanced itself from organized religion, it is safe say that society has still remained spiritual. The objects of worship may have shifted, but cities continue to be centers of worship. People in cities “turn to false gods, such as power, fame, possessions, privilege, and comfort” (Al Barth). The urban liturgies of a few major U.S. cities can be identified as: Washington, D.C.—power; New York—success; Los Angeles—fame, etc. A city resembles what it reveres, either for ruin or for restoration.
Originally meant to be centers of safety, refuge, and shelter, cities are now embodied by wealth and governance. The Christian mission should not be defined by the power structures of the modern day—as the gospel will necessarily challenge those very power structures. But cities will continue to be magnets for an increasing majority of the world’s population, thus they are important to our kingdom efforts.
Cities & Suburbs
It is apparent that the dynamics in cities are different than in suburban or rural areas. There is less density and diversity in the latter contexts than in cities. The racial and socioeconomic diversity in urban contexts cause cities to be more heterogeneous, and more homogeneous as you venture outward. Cities are magnets that attract aspirational people, and the cultural agility of any given setting is directly correlated with the level of heterogeneity of that particular setting—the more diverse, the more agile. With all these factors combined, there has been a growing emphasis on urban missions because of the matching need seen in cities.
However, it seems that right alongside the excitement surrounding the new urban mission field there is a growing sense among some rural and suburban leaders that their ministries are being devalued or brought into question when the strategic importance of cities is discussed. Many of those who serve in suburban and rural places have a right to be at least mildly offended by the way that the discussions surrounding urban missions have sometimes developed. There have been times when those with a heart for the city have spoken in a triumphant, cavalier manner—as though urban centers were the only legitimate place that God might call individuals to proclaim the gospel. This problem is particularly prominent among young leaders who, in their zeal to bring the gospel to the city, have sometimes overinflated their own ministerial calling and, in the process, deflated the call that others have received to rural and suburban places.
Because this has been the case, city-ministry enthusiasts must be increasingly thoughtful about the ways in which we frame our urban emphasis. Though we believe that major shifts in urban migration patterns demand an intentional response, we must never underestimate the essential and innovative work that God is doing through many in nonurban settings. Let us find ways to be pro-city without coming off as anti-suburban. Both urban and nonurban leaders should move forward together on gospel mission, regardless of context.
Engaging Your City
So the question remains: How do I tangibly engage and interact with the city that I live in? While there are many different approaches to this question, I would suggest three practical, introductory steps:
Know your city’s story.
More often than not, our relationship to our city’s storyline is like a fish’s relationship to water: we’re so immersed in it that we don’t notice it until it is threatened.
Before doing ministry in a city, Paul knew its story. Putting together what we know from first-century urban history and Paul’s speeches in the book of Acts, here are the storylines of a few of the cities that Paul ministered in: Jerusalem—tradition; Rome—power; Athens—knowledge; Ephesus—religion.
How would you describe the prevailing voice of your city? It may be helpful to summarize your city’s story with one word (e.g. Silicon Valley—success; San Francisco—equality; Boston—knowledge, etc.). How should this sense of your city’s story shape how you live, work, worship, and witness in your city?
Challenge your city’s story.
Contextualized city ministry discerns the idols at the foundation of a city’s story and skillfully confronts them, setting you up to retell them with the gospel. Every city has idols that need to be identified and shown for what they are. Paul, recalling his ministry in Thessalonica, a city with a population of over 100,000 and the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, wrote: “For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9, English Standard Version).
If ministry in the city is not contextualized to challenge a city’s unique idolatry, then our ministry will be shallow and unsubstantial. Our cities’ inhabitants must know that the idols they love do not love them back. Jesus is the one Master who loved us when we were at our worst, who substituted his life for ours, and who reigns over our lives with perfect wisdom, power, and love. The self-defined, self-ruled, self-possessed people in your city need to hear this.
Retell your city’s story.
The gospel doesn’t eradicate a city’s story, but it brings completeness to it. Once a city’s story has been challenged, it must be retold. The gospel resolves the thickening tension in the city’s narrative and shows that resolution, relief, and rest are to be found only in Jesus Christ.
One common error we often make in the city is announcing the gospel without ever connecting it to the hopes and the idols of the city. If we are unable to speak to the deepest aspirations, longings, hopes, and fears of our cities, we are missing significant opportunities for gospel connections. The people of our cities are asking the question, “What sort of story am I in?” City ministry enters into the prevailing plotlines of the city and answers this question with the gospel.
Balancing Urban Mission
For those who find themselves in urban ministry contexts, it is important to balance ministry efforts on these four fronts: evangelistic worship, community development, social justice/mercy, and the integration of faith and work. More so than a “ministry how-to,” a balance of these four fronts is latent in the DNA of the gospel. In order to properly engage our surrounding culture, our outreach must be contextualized through an integrative approach of ministry fronts. While it is difficult to balance our efforts in each of these fronts equally, no one front should be neglected.
Because of a cosmopolitan spirit, city dwellers are uniquely open to new ideas. Urban dwellers ultimately lack and need the upside-down, power-sharing, worship-reordering, redemptive work of Christ. The gospel is the one story that can rewrite all the misdirected stories that our cities are telling. It is the way that worship is rightly reordered and the way in which worship becomes life giving again. Cities are a portal for the gospel to make its way.
Dr. Stephen Um is the coauthor of Why Cities Matter, Associate Training Director for Redeemer City to City, and senior minister of Citylife Presbyterian Church in Boston, Massachusetts.